Sugar – it’s sweet, delicious and, when consumed as part of a balanced diet, is definitely not something (else) to feel guilty about enjoying! Yet according to Public Health England, we’re consuming way too much of the stuff and not enough fruit, veg, oily fish and fibre.
Often added as a preservative or flavour enhancer, sugar can find its way into all kinds of foods, from pasta sauces to seemingly ‘healthy’ cereal bars. As a result it can be easy to unknowingly exceed recommended daily limits for sugar consumption (around 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over).
Here we look at how to spot hidden sugars in many of the everyday foods we buy and offer some tips to help you stay on top of your, and your family's sugar intake.
Know what to look for
There are many different types of sugars so it’s important to know what to look out for on food and drink labels. The kind we typically over-consume and which can be attributed to increasing waist lines are known as added or ‘free’ sugars. These are sugars that are removed from their original source and added to our food and drinks. Be aware that those found in syrups or honey are also ‘free’ sugars.
Some common free sugars include:
- Cane sugar
- Corn syrup
Georgina Camfield, associate nutritionist at AXA Health says: “These ‘free’ sugars can provide unnecessary calories, have very little other nutritional benefits and ideally shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the total calories we consume on a daily basis.”
The most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey highlighted that in all age groups, average intake of free sugars exceeded the government recommendations, in adults (those aged 19 to 64 years) average intake of free sugars as a percentage of total energy intake was 9.9%, nearly double the recommended intake.
Fizzy soft drinks, snack bars, honey and desserts all contain ‘free’ sugars. In contrast, the sugars that are naturally found in foods, such as fructose in fruit, and lactose in milk, also contain vitamins, minerals and fibre which are essential for a balanced diet and maintaining good health. Naturally occurring sugars act differently from free sugars in the body because they are accompanied by fibre, protein and water. These make it easier for the body to be able to absorb the naturally occurring sugar at a slow and steady rate. Reducing or eliminating the amount of free sugars we consume may not only help with weight loss but can also reduce the risk of many common health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.
How can I tell if a food is high in sugar?
Most packaged food items or drinks have a nutritional information panel, which lists ‘Carbohydrates of which sugars’. High-sugar food contains more than 22.5g per 100g, and a low-sugar food contains less than 5g per 100g. A high-sugar drink contains more than 11.25g per 100ml, and a low-sugar drink contains less than 2.5g. The "of which sugars" figure describes the total amount of sugars from all sources – free sugars, plus those from milk, and those present in fruit and vegetables.
Planning ‘free’ sugar-free days
Georgina suggests that going ‘sugar-free’ now and then could help us understand how much sugar we might have in one day.
“It’s a great way to encourage you to cut back, and is less restricting than going completely sugar-free all the time. You can organise your sugar-free days around your lifestyle and not feel guilty about times when you may exceed a bit, like when you’re on holiday, or out for dinner.”
Easy sugar swaps:
Fizzy drinks or squash
Choose water (add some mint, lemon or orange slices for flavouring) or low-fat milk. When you do have fruit juice try diluting it with plain or sparkling water.
Freshly squeezed or pressed fruit juice
Stick with the recommended portion sizes for fruit juice, 150ml, as it lacks the fibre content found in raw fruit.
If a sweet start to the day is your thing, why not try making some homemade granola, topped with Greek yogurt and berries, or a fruit Bircher mix? For more ideas, take a look at what our health experts eat for breakfast - and why.
Honey, jam or marmalade spreads
Try something savoury like smashed avocado, or nut butter with sliced banana on top instead.
Mid-morning cereal bar
Try sliced apple with a nut butter dip, or some nuts and dried fruit (just make sure there’s no added sugar to the fruit!)
Switch milk chocolate to dark chocolate (just make sure it’s a minimum 70% cocoa).
Swap for wholegrain bread, which has more fibre and less sugar than white bread.
Head over to our diet and nutrition hub for more healthy living tips and recipes.
 National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019) - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
NHS Sugar: the facts
The Association of UK Dieticians (BDA) Sugar: Fact sheet